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The Tension And The Break

The Tension And The Break

To tell the story of the North's ice cycles, Yellowknife composer Carmen Braden translates nature into music
By Tim Edwards
Oct 02
2015
From the October 2015 Issue

She swoops her right hand through the air, imitating the lilt of a raven playing in the wind. It hangs for a second and a half at the top of its crescendo then swoops down fast, and back up slowly like a rollercoaster, to hang in the air again before its next swoop. Its movement is unpredictable, but it has a sort of rhythm unique to nature—at once chaotic and intuitive. There’s music to it.

Carmen Braden is a 29-year-old composer from Yellowknife, and she is utterly enveloped in her thesis project. It’s not just the culmination of her master's in composition, it’s the culmination of her life’s work: a musical expression of the life cycle of ice. To do it right, she’s spent five years listening to the ice, transforming the sounds into visual and musical cues, and the last two years both researching the science behind ice formation and composing 25 minutes of music.

“Since I’ve spent so much time up here, I’m looking for the unusual side of it. Sometimes what [visitors] experience are the norms, where I’m looking for the oddities, the more hidden things, the subtle things—what you won’t hear so blatantly.” No harsh winds and howling wolves, but those melodies and rhythms—like the lilt of the ravens—that are all around us yet often go unnoticed.

Carmen Braden at her home and studio. Photo: Hannah Eden

The day before we spoke, Carmen played piano and sang on stage with Northern stars Tanya Tagaq and Leela Gilday, and Australia’s Kim Churchill. Carmen was the coordinator of the collaboration, a yearly facet of Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks music festival in which musicians from throughout the festival’s lineup are put on stage together to perform original material. Carmen’s job was to take everyone’s ideas and mould them into coherent songs. It worked. The audience was full of cheering, hollering fans.

“Since I’ve spent so much time up here, I’m looking for the unusual side of it. Sometimes what [visitors] experience are the norms, where I’m looking for the oddities, the more hidden things, the subtle things—what you won’t hear so blatantly.”

Braden’s slowly been building a reputation around town as a talented, bold musician. For David Whitelock, director of Folk on the Rocks, she was the obvious choice to coordinate the collaberation. She is the only person in the North writing contemporary classical, and she’s finding music in the North no one else hears—and she’s quick and confident on her feet. She also has a very public background in folk music, playing the keys with local talent all over town.

She started playing piano at five, part of a generation of Yellowknife musicians who trained under the tutelage of pianist Ardith Dean, a bit of a local legend. Throughout grades 1 to 12, she was in Bill Gilday’s music classes. (Yes, that’s Leela’s father.) Her grandmother Esther Braden, at 92, still plays the organ at functions around the city, and her uncle Pat Braden is the go-to session bassist in Yellowknife—he’s played with every major Northern musician, as well as big names that come through Yellowknife for festivals like Folk on the Rocks. He put on a few rousing sets this past year with master blues guitarist Jimmy D. Lane from Chicago. (“Pat’s ability to just drop into a situation and just own it is astounding,” says Carmen. “And he does it with such grace. Everyone loves him.”)

It’s this support network (plus her partner Eli) that she credits with all she’s been able to accomplish. “These people, even the ones that weren’t teachers in the traditional way, create this atmosphere. And they had to fight some huge battles that we didn’t have to fight.” Yellowknife’s not even 100 years old. It was Carmen’s parents’ generation who made sure there was a music program in school, and who built the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC), the city’s main year-round venue for theatre and music. Through that music program, Carmen got her start.

Bill Gilday says she was a shy, quiet kid who watched and listened carefully in her early years, who became more and more confident and involved as she entered high school—joining every choir and school band; playing the trumpet, then the flute, then switching to the tuba, and playing them all well. And then through NACC, Carmen began taking her art to the next level. After getting an undergraduate degree in music composition at Acadia University, Carmen joined the NACC mentorship program, which led to her collaborating with serious national talent: the Penderecki String Quartet (who performed Carmen’s piece “The Raven Conspiracy” in 2013), the Elmer Iseler Singers (who performed Carmen’s “Lake Skin” in Yellowknife last year) the Gryphon Trio (who performed her piece “Candle Ice” at the Ottawa Chamberfest last year).

But those groups were just visiting. There aren’t other composers in Yellowknife with whom Carmen can compare notes and get criticism. To try to reach her next level, she needed to leave Yellowknife again. So she went to the University of Calgary and began working on her thesis.

Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer coined that term to describe “the study of the effects of the acoustic environment, or soundscape, on the physical responses or behavioural characteristics of creatures living within it.”

On a cold November day, Carmen, wearing a red toque and winter coat and carrying an axe, wanders out of Yellowknife onto the thin ice of Great Slave Lake. She stops by Joliffe Island, near the fish processing plant, raises the axe and swings down hard into the ice. Whack, whack, whack. Water bubbles up. The ice is only four inches thick—just enough to hold her weight, but not enough to drive on yet. Carmen drops a microphone through the hole, puts headphones over her ears and stays absolutely still, listening.

It’s February, even colder, with a deeper, settled layer of snow over the ice. And there she is again, trudging out onto the lake, this time near the old Con Mine on the southeast side of the city. Now she’s got an auger, one of those four-foot spiral hand-drills ice fishers use. After slowly boring through nearly two metres of ice, she hits water. Again, she drops a microphone through the hole, puts on headphones and listens.

Watch - Yellowknife composer Carmen Braden translates nature into music:

By June, the ice has retreated far out beyond Yellowknife Bay, but little pans still hang here and there, slowly melting away—and Carmen’s back, in a canoe, hanging around the edge of a pan with her microphone in the water. The ice sounds like a thousand wind chimes as the melt turns it into many little shards that tinkle and clink together. 

She’s been interested in the sounds of nature ever since she was introduced to “acoustic ecology” during her undergrad. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer coined that term to describe “the study of the effects of the acoustic environment, or soundscape, on the physical responses or behavioural characteristics of creatures living within it.” Schafer’s compositions, and those of Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax, incorporated environmental sound into musical compositions. And then Carmen found music in ravens, the leaves on trees, and, most importantly for our purposes, in ice.

The Ice Seasons is the story of the life and death of lake ice in the subarctic taiga. Its structure is based on the physical structure of ice—as there are six sides to an ice crystal, it is to be played by six stringed instruments and a six-person choir, and there are six movements in the piece. Its flourishes and melodies mimic its formation and decay, its cracks and booms as it shifts, and it hints at how ice shapes the human experience: The wonder of looking through the cracked ice into the impermeable darkness beneath; the joy in skating and playing on the ice; the coldness, the danger of going through. Just as nature provides the framework for ice to exist, and for us to use it for easier transportation and play, it also provides the structure for Carmen to build her opus around. 

Movement three “evokes the joy of the first skate of the winter, with its constant motion, speed, unpredictability, and undercurrent of danger.” 

The first movement, Emergence, tells of when the first molecules of water crystallize into ice along the lakeshore in October. If calm, a smooth layer of ice can form over the surface of the water, but rising wind can create waves in the open water that breaks the sheet and sends ice shards back to the rocky shore. This movement evokes “fragile materialization,” Carmen writes in her thesis. The sound swells, the chorus sings in breathy whispers, there are brief moments of tremolo (rapid back and forth of the bow on a string) and at times concurrent melodies move in opposite directions—one going low, signifying the ice thickening downwards, as the other ascends the clef, signifying heat rising from the water through the ice and into the atmosphere as the lake cools.

The composer's studio: Carmen's sheet music snakes around her house, in order, so she can walk along it, reading and imagining the music in time. Photo: Hannah Eden

The next five movements sweep through the ice’s life cycle. In movement two, the ice stretches from the shores, covers the lake and deepens. Movement three “evokes the joy of the first skate of the winter, with its constant motion, speed, unpredictability, and undercurrent of danger,” writes Carmen in her thesis paper. In the fourth, the sound deepens and tension builds towards a gigantic boom, as ice sheets push together like tectonic plates and build in tension before cracking. This is when the ice is at its thickest, deepest. The fifth, most personal movement personifies the frozen lake as Grandmother Ice, and the choir sings of her beauty, age and wisdom, with the melancholic knowledge of her impermanence. As spring arrives, the ice can do nothing but decay and become water once again. And finally it does, in the sixth movement, breaking apart into pans which recede and candle and jostle against the shore.

Throughout the composition, Carmen’s techniques and choices reflect scientific and poetic aspects of ice. Sometimes it might seem chaotic, only to briefly come together in harmony. This is intentional. “I’m looking for that rhythmic unpredictability that I hear in nature, where I don’t exactly know where the next crack is going to happen,” she says. “You sit there for two hours and you just wait.”

“I’m so ready to be done, Tim, I’m so ready to be done,” Carmen tells me as we sip tea in her living room, while her partner Eli (to whom her composition is dedicated) works on his laptop in the background. He helped her collect field recordings and stay sane throughout the most intense writing process she’s ever been through. “It’s been hands down one of the most amazing experiences, writing it, because it’s taken so much focus, so much energy.” But she’s been so focused on this for so long that she’s uncertain of what comes next.

“Coming back [after two years of school] is going to be a new challenge for me, to figure out who I am and what I’m doing. But I have enough history up here that I feel like whatever I put myself into I can make it work—it’s a matter of figuring out what’s best for me creatively, a bit of what’s best for me financially, and what’s best for the community.” Carmen wants to stay in Yellowknife and help build the scene. Not even 30, she’s already talking about how excited she is for the next crop of Northern composers to start producing weird, boundary-pushing Northern music. She’s only scratching the surface of the Northern soundscape herself, and now that she’s opened her ears to it, there’s almost too much to hear. Carmen tells me a story about how she was sitting by a lake outside of town and two carpenter ants were gnawing on wood on either side of her—and man, were they jamming. “To use a jazz term, they were ‘in the pocket,’” she says. And then we talk about the dialectical differences among city ravens and those that live out in the bush—their caws are so different that they don’t even sound like the same birds. “I look around and I feel like there’s musical potential everywhere around me. So sometimes that makes me feel like I want to crawl into a hole, and other times it makes me feel excited about whatever next project I will do.” 

Outside Carmen’s house, the leaves on a poplar tree flutter in the wind. There are thousands of these leaves, green on one side and white on the other, fluttering back and forth rapidly. “It’s like there’s a pattern, some super-complex mathematical formula, but I feel like it’s almost getting so complex that it’s come back around to a super-simple answer that’s staring me in the face,” she says of this rhythm—nature’s rhythm. “And I still can’t get it but I can’t look away. And I hope that I never actually solve it. I hope that the fascination will be here and the closer I get to it, the deeper it goes.”

Correction: a previous version of this online article noted Carmen Braden is working on her doctorate. She is in fact working on her master's.